Thursday, March 1, 2012

Leave No Trace and Wilderness Medicine

It’s late in the day and it’s been raining since breakfast. Your group is moving along the trail but at a much slower pace than you had hoped for, and the chances of making the intended campsite are not looking good. You try to motivate your group to keep moving but most of them, despite being prepared, are soaked to the bone. As you push on, you come to the final creek crossing of the day and thankfully there’s a log bridge. The first 6 members of your group safely navigate the slick bridge but the last, and strongest, member of your group makes it halfway across, slips and ends up falling into the icy water. Thankfully the creek isn’t too large but it’s swollen from the rain and is swift enough to carry her 50 feet downstream. When she finally stops in a calm section of the creek, you immediately notice that she has blood running down her face and is holding onto her arm, screaming in pain.

What now?

Clearly the well being of your injured group member is the primary concern, closely followed by the well being of the rest of the group. It is situations like these where adequate first aid and wilderness medicine training is crucial, which speaks to the first Principle of Leave No Trace – Plan Ahead and Prepare. Assuming you have the proper medical training to handle the situation, and you’re able to stabilize the patient and insure the safety and comfort of your group, it is time to think about Leave No Trace.

Over the past few years the Center has worked with its long-standing partner Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities, better known as SOLO Wilderness Medicine to create Leave No Trace guidelines for wilderness medicine. The Center realizes that in wilderness medicine situations the safety and health of all involved is the priority. However, that doesn’t mean that Leave No Trace cannot, or should not, be considered. The following guidelines are designed to help better integrate Leave No Trace into wilderness medicine.


• Being prepared with simple medical equipment, as well as obtaining proper training and establishing an emergency action plan before each trip, can both prevent medical emergencies as well as substantially decrease your impact in an emergency situation. A simple SAM splint eliminates the need to create a splint using tree limbs. The use of a wheeled litter reduces the number of rescuers needed and the associated trail widening.
• Establishing evacuation routes that consider topography, route conditions and potential resource damage can minimize associated impacts as well as make it easier on responders.

• Concentrate traffic on established trails, campsites or non-vegetated areas where possible.
• Maintain an awareness of the surfaces you are traveling on and attempt to minimize your impact in sensitive areas such as riparian areas, alpine tundra, sensitive mosses and wetlands, fragile desert soils and dense vegetation.
• If you have a large group, break into smaller groups and keep all but essential personnel on durable surfaces.


• Pack it in, pack it out. Carry leak-proof bags to carry out used gauze, bandages and other materials. Bodily fluids are possible contaminants and should be carefully contained or cleaned up and packed out.

• When washing a wound, be sure to carry water at least 200 ft or 70 paces away from water sources to avoid contamination. Carry biodegradable soap.
• Any other types of human waste (e.g. vomit) that cannot be packed out should be buried 6 to 8 inches deep, 200 feet away from water sources, campsites or trails.


• Leave the site as close to its original state as possible. In an emergency situation or evacuation, Leave No Trace considerations are clearly not paramount, but even small considerations can avoid or minimize unnecessary resource impacts.

• When possible, use a lightweight stove to quickly and safely heat water and/or food in an emergency.
• If a fire is needed for heat, use an established fire ring, a fire pan or make a quick fire mound out of mineral soil (a pedestal of soil 18-24” in diameter, 8-10” tall).
• Choose a location that considers surrounding trees and vegetation, and local fire danger. Select an area that is large enough to accommodate your group.


• Avoid unwanted wildlife interactions by cleaning up all emergency use sites and travel routes. Do not leave medical supplies unattended or wildlife may damage, contaminate or carry them off.
• Give wildlife plenty of space. Wildlife will generally become a problem only if it feels threatened. If a bear or mountain lion caused the injuries, keep all emergency response personnel together for safety as the animal may be close by or return.


• Be aware of other visitors in the vicinity and take precautions to avoid additional injuries. Bystanders may want to help, and in many cases, this may be appropriate. However, in some cases involving bystanders may only complicate an emergency. Use your judgment.

© Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics – 2009


Bob Hazelton said...

I just completed a Wilderness First Aid course put on by WMI-NOLS and I thought about LNT the whole weekend.
During a few scenarios the decision was made to leave behind the backpack the injured person was carrying. Even when that decision is made the food and other "smell-ables" need to be removed from the pack so that the critters aren't attracted.
As always, if you're able to carry supplies in your first aid kit then you're able to carry out the used items.
As soon as I got home I put two small plastic trash bags and a gallon size double zip-loc freezer bag into my first aid kit so that waste disposal isn't an after thought.

Hollister Lee said...

I don't quite understand what you mean, trouble again to explain.

Brent Ingvardsen said...

Your absolutely correct. Your packing out exactly what was brought in. Your just isolating the biohazard and genally soiled items for packing out. Great idea.